On January 9, President Daniel Noboa of Ecuador declared a 60-day emergency. This came into effect two two days after, Adolfo Macias, a notorious gang leader, escaped from prison. Macias, after suddenly vanishing from his cell, led a series of violent revolts against the government threatening security guards and officials to reverse its decisions to transfer prisoners.
An internal conflict was then unleashed, putting the citizens of Ecuador at risk, and making Noboa make his sudden decision. Macias is known as the leader of the “Los Choneros” gang and had been incarcerated for murder, drug trafficking, and organized crime since 2011.
Around 3000 guards and police officers were sent to search for him as soon as word of his escape broke out, however, in the two weeks since his escape, Macias has not been found. In the aftermath of the prison escape, several more prison riots started occurring all over the country. With these, 114 guards and 14 staff members were taken hostage, making the president take the measure of not allowing people to leave their homes from 11 pm to 5 am.
The riots come to protest the maximum security prisons being built for those linked to gang activity and high-risk criminals. Many gang leaders orchestrate their doings from inside the prisons and so the crimes that happen outside are harder to track down. According to the government, the purpose of the prison barges is to separate the incarcerated criminal gang leaders and isolate them from any communication that they are currently using freely from inside the country’s prisons. After seeing Macias escape, the other prisoners saw the opportunity to break loose as well and therefore avoid their transfer to a maximum security prison.
Other events that led to the declaration of a state of emergency
A live broadcast was interrupted by an assault on a TV station, leaving the whole nation in terror. Ecuadorian officials and the police are not quite sure whether the prison escape and the assault are directly linked. However, they happened at a crucial time when the nation’s police officers were taken hostage and one was forced to read a statement to President Noboa.
As stated in The Guardian: “The television station assault was the crescendo of a week of bloodshed and mayhem that has confounded a country long regarded as one of South America’s safest places.” This all led Noboa to register 22 gangs as terrorist groups and therefore make them a target for the military.
“In Ecuador, we have never seen this kind of thing, where a channel has been practically hijacked and a broadcast starts with shootings, with kidnappings,” said Francisco Rosas. “So what kind of security situation are we in? And if a television station is capable of receiving this type of robbery, this type of insecurity, imagine restaurants or shops.” The idea of the assault was to give a public statement addressed not only to the president but to the entire nation, demanding Noboa to stop the state of emergency.
The gangs are operating at free will and mercilessly, criminal groups have shot civilians; looted stores; and set off car bombs and other explosions in the capital Quito and Guayaquil, a major port city on the Pacific coast. An investigation was also opened into the incidents of the TV station takeover. The prosecutor in charge, Cesar Suarez, was found shot and killed on January 18. Consequently, the military has been commanded to “restore order” and the president has pledged to bring back peace for its civilians and guarantee stability.
What has led to the current situation in Ecuador?
A surge in the country’s criminal activity started about five years ago. Going from drug trafficking, and homicides to kidnappings and organized crime. Last year on August 9, 2023, “Los Choneros” were found to be responsible for the murder of the presidential candidate Fernando Villanvicencio.
Ecuador finds itself in a strategic position right between Peru and Colombia, the biggest cocaine producers in the world. This makes the access and distribution of drugs in Ecuador a lot easier especially now with the rise in gang activity.
Los Choneros came to be a subsidiary of the “Sinaloa Cartel”, one of the biggest drug cartels in Mexico. The connection between these Latin American countries makes the recent escape of utmost concern on an international level. The Ecuadorian gang has also recently had ties to the mafia in Albania, over the past four years – Mexican cartels and crime syndicates including the Albanian mafia have flocked to Ecuador in search of huge profits from the cocaine trade.
The situation may continue to escalate and has deeper ties than imagined, Chris Alby, an organized crime expert, explains how European drug use is the fundamental pillar of violence in Ecuador, explaining how Guayaquil’s Pacific coast port was the main point of export for cocaine from neighboring Colombia and Peru.
As for the moment and in light of the recent happenings, the future of Ecuador and the next steps remain quite uncertain. The only thing for certain is that President Noboa´s pledges remain and his curfew will still hold for 50 more days.
The recent murder of the prosecutor shows that the situation is very much still recent. However, as the Attorney General of Ecuador, Diana Salazar explained that “the criminals, the terrorists, will not hold back our commitment to Ecuadorian society.”
As explained by “The Conversation”, Ecuador now looks set to follow the recent path of El Salvador under President Nayib Bukele’s leadership in trying to crack the gang problem through the use of military force and the suspension of democratic norms”.
Once Bukele took office, the country went through a dramatic change reducing homicide rates by 60% in the first year and becoming the country with the most incarcerated population. Talks are already underway between Ecuador, El Salvador, and Mexico to bring these maximum prisons to life.
Furthermore, “The prisons are just part of the solution to what Ecuador is experiencing, Two months after Noboa came to power, with historic levels of criminality reaching 40 homicides per 100,000 of the population, the security and penitentiary policy he called Plan Phoenix has been revealed in dribs and drabs, through the few interviews that the president has given to various media outlets.”
Noboa acknowledges that even though more state action and support will be needed, the prisons will be an essential part of achieving this. A new future for Ecuador is demanded not only by the citizens but also by the international community.
Photo by: Times of Oman